BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — An amateur rapper who wrote about smashing someone’s head like a tin can was acquitted Tuesday of murder and robbery charges stemming from a killing where the victim died from a severe injury to his head.
A jury found Michael Emory Johnson not guilty on all charges following a weeklong trial and his release was expected within hours. His public defender, Mark Aguilar, said Johnson was very emotional and broke down in tears when the verdicts were announced.
Johnson, 21, had faced the possibility of life in prison if convicted of killing Jesus Torres, 28.
Aguilar said the prosecution built its case on circumstantial evidence such as internet and cellphone records to try to prove Johnson was with the victim and killed him with a single blow from a baseball bat or bottle. The jury deliberated for about two hours before reaching the not guilty verdicts, the attorney said.
Prosecutor Richard Choi called the case challenging and said investigators uncovered as much evidence as they could. He presented that evidence to jurors to see whether they determined it was enough to find Johnson guilty. They decided it wasn’t.
“The jury performed their responsibility and determined that the evidence did not reach the level required for criminal conviction,” Choi said.
Johnson had arranged to sell a phone to Torres through the online app OfferUp, investigators said in court filings. Torres was found dead several hours after they were scheduled to meet at Stiern Park on Aug. 30, 2017.
A search of OfferUp and cellphone records, as well as IP addresses, identified Johnson as the person Torres had planned to meet, investigators said. Additionally, Johnson’s cellular location data tied him to the area where Torres’ phone was eventually recovered, investigators said.
Prosecutors said in a news release Tuesday that records uncovered in the case showed there had been a disagreement between Torres and Johnson regarding the meeting and Torres’ planned purchase of the phone. Torres provided his exact location and description of his vehicle to Johnson to complete the transaction. It’s the same location where Torres’ body was found.
At trial, evidence was presented that Torres’ phone was used just after his death to contact Johnson’s family, prosecutors said, suggesting Johnson had possession of the phone.
But Aguilar argued Johnson had been babysitting his niece the day of the killing, and he wouldn’t have gone to the park and left her home alone. The crime could possibly have involved someone Johnson knew, the attorney said, but there was not enough physical evidence to tie Johnson to the slaying.
In the court filings, investigators mentioned the violent rap songs Johnson wrote, some of them about beating people in the head.
“Karate kick, knock his melon off,” Johnson raps in one song, investigators said. “Click in till he (unintelligible), smash his head like a tin can, beat the kiddie up till he’s asleep and he’s leakin,” he says in another.
Aguilar said some of Johnson’s songs are about beating people, others are about shootings and “all manner of violent acts and nonsense.” But he said those songs are an act to build street credibility and attract listeners. Johnson rapped about shooting people but didn’t even own a gun, he said.
“Rap is entertainment,” Aguilar said. “It doesn’t sell if it’s not exciting.”
District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer warned of the dangers of arranging meetings with strangers to purchase or sell items. If you do plan to buy an item from a stranger, she recommended meeting at a place where cameras and law enforcement are present, especially in front of a police department.
“Not only does meeting near police departments reduce the risk of violence and robbery due to law enforcement’s immediate, visible presence, but it also increases the likelihood that any criminal acts that do occur can be immediately responded to and evidence of any crime be readily available and secured,” Zimmer said.